When Zac Taylor took over as the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coach, he promised a vision and a blueprint to get the Bengals back to winning ways. It was met with skepticism for a number of reasons, but the first time head man is slowly winning over one of the most cynical fan bases in the NFL.
His latest step in the process came in the netting of 10 talented draft picks. Knee-jerk reactions had people questioning his ability to identify talent, but once the whole, three-day picture came into focus, things began to make a lot of sense.
Still, there is a massive amount of trust that’s being asked of fans and ownership when it comes to Taylor and his vision. We talked about the 2019 class and the aftermath on this week’s Orange and Black Insider.
Favorite picks/High value
Jonah Williams: While linebacker was the most pressing need for the Bengals going into the draft, offensive line wasn’t far behind. At best, the Bengals’ line up front was comprised of a bunch of “B” or “C” players that they’ve collected in a variety of ways. Williams may not be an absolute “A+” of a player, but he’s very good—AKA a guy with a “high floor”.
After the debacle that was the 2015 draft class and subsequent free agent periods where names like Andrew Whitworth and Kevin Zeitler were lost up front, grabbing what seems like the best lineman in the class was the way to go. Oh, and speaking of Whitworth, some believe No. 73 is the second coming of No. 77.
It wasn’t the sexiest pick and Williams may never totally fill Whitworth’s shoes, but Cincinnati seized value, in terms of who was left on the board. Now, the question is where and how Williams will contribute as a rookie.
Germaine Pratt: Most fans and pundits figured the Bengals would target a linebacker within the first three rounds and the team grabbed a talented one at the end of Round 3. No, it wasn’t one of the Devin’s, or Alabama’s Mack Wilson (who actually lasted until the fifth round), but rather Pratt, who should be a plug-and-play starter in Week 1.
Though the team stacked up on middle linebackers by trade this offseason (Pratt, Preston Brown and Deshaun Davis), the rookie should be able to fill the vacant WILL spot left empty by Vontaze Burfict’s departure. While that will elicit eye-rolls from the Who Dey faithful, Pratt is a converted safety who ran a 4.57 in the 40-yard dash at 240 pounds.
Renell Wren: On this week’s Orange and Black Insider, I noted that Wren very well could have been my personal favorite pick in this class. Co-host John Sheeran didn’t seem to share the sentiment, though, but he does have sound reasons for that stance.
Wren is a physical freak who ran a 5.01-second time in the 40-yard dash at 6’5” and 318 pounds. I mean, cue the eye-bulge emoji, right?
Still, the tape and stats didn’t always match up to the potential, and that’s why Wren lasted until Day 3. There is a lot of growth and development of nuances that need to take place at the NFL level, but improved coaching and surrounding talent on the Bengals’ line could hasten his ability to positively impact the defense.
Trayveon Williams: Cincinnati grabbed two running backs in the sixth round and both proved to be great value. Williams is a guy who didn’t test overly-well, but is a true “tape guy”. He has the inside track at being the team’s third running back, as he will be familiar with what concepts and blocking schemes both Zac Taylor and offensive line coach Jim Turner want to run.
Rodney Anderson: The former Oklahoma Sooner has quite the college history, but if it all ends up falling in the right places at the next level, Cincinnati may have nabbed one of the steals of the draft. Anderson is very talented, but a myriad of scary injuries—including hurt his draft stock. He shot to stardom with a barrage of productive games in 2017, but a season-ending knee injury ended his 2018 campaign in the second game of the season.
Drew Sample: The pick of the tight end in the second-round was raked over the coals in the immediate aftermath, but cooler heads have since prevailed. Look, the production and athletic metrics bring questions about his pro viability, while the positional need was down the pecking order.
Still, the criticisms here may be nothing more than splitting hairs. Sample may very well provide versatility in the form of blocking and being an H-Back, as well as being a contingency plan for a position group that was devastated by injuries last season.
Ryan Finley: The Bengals needed a backup quarterback and Finley should be a good player in that regard. And, if we’re going with the Todd McShay tinfoil hat theory, Finley may even be a bridge guy next year if the Bengals want to part with Andy Dalton and his zero dead money, while using a high pick on the next franchise guy.
Still, even if Finley is simply going to be a backup for the Bengals for his career, was he worth trading two picks to move up for as a reserve guy? Again, a possible splitting of hairs here, but the pick just isn’t fully sitting right.
The “Zac Taylor player profile” and “scheme guys”
When Taylor took over the reins, he preached character. Some jumped all over his back because of his hiring of Turner and his colored past, but he’s stuck to his word, for the most part.
This can especially be seen with the 10 picks he brought in last weekend. There was a troubling incident in 2017 with Anderson and some rumblings about wide receiver Stanley Morgan, but we’re talking about a sixth-round pick and an undrafted free agent, respectively.
And, for the most part the guys that comprise the group exude maturity and leadership—qualities that haven’t always been hallmarks of previous Bengals teams. Whether it was in some players being given major collegiate captain responsibilities, their completion of a degree, or even getting married early in life, Taylor wanted guys he can trust from an off-field perspective.
He also wants to be able to trust them on the field. The two running backs selected in Round 6 are comfortable in zone schemes and can catch out the backfield. Sample will be a movable piece in the offense, while Williams and Pratt should be immediate starters providing high football IQ and toughness. By the way, do yourself a favor and listen to one of the many post-pick interviews with Jonah Williams if you get the chance.
The affects of the picks on incumbent veterans
There were two players under the microscope as the Bengals began their foray in Nashville last weekend: Andy Dalton and John Ross. We’ve spoken ad nauseum about the former, and with the Bengals waiting until the fourth round to draft a quarterback this year (albeit one they seem to really like), No. 14 is the Bengals’ guy for at least 2019.
And, with the team investing in the offensive line and other pieces on offense this offseason, it’s the wisest move among all other options presented to them this spring—at least for the short-term. New coach, a replenishment of talent and improved blocking could raise Dalton’s play to a near-2015 level in this running back-focused system.
As for Ross, even more trust was shown to him and the position group this spring. Morgan could make a push to make this year’s roster, but Taylor was a man of his word when he said he’s excited to see what the former No. 9 overall pick can do in his system.
Last year, Ross was a somewhat-surprising red zone threat, grabbing seven touchdowns on just 21 total receptions. And, as Sheeran and I noted on OBI, if the coaches can couple his ability to separate in those short spaces while concocting less predictable yards-after-the-catch plays, we could finally see a player who resembles the guy who dominated the PAC-12.
Oh, and he’ll be out of this staff’s doghouse, which should lessen the pressure.
The verdict and grading the class
If we’re handing out letter grades, which are truly useless until about 2-3 years down the road, we’ll give Taylor a “B” for his first effort as a head coach. It wasn’t the sexiest draft, but it was effective and the team could theoretically still scour the free agent market to add rental pieces.
This offseason, Mike Brown and the front office has tried to sell the idea to fans that if the team remains healthy, they will be in the hunt. On its face, it’s a hard sell, given the history of this team and their coming off of three straight losing seasons.
However, while the draft and free agency signings haven’t moved the national needle, there is one truth veiled by the splashiness of other teams: the 2019 Bengals are a deeper team that is better-equipped to be competitive should the injury bug hit them hard once again.
Finley is a guy who should be able to net a better record than Jeff Driskel’s 1-4 mark, while the offensive line, running back, tight end and other spots seem to be in a better place than that of 2016-2018. Maybe Brown actually has a leg to stand on in his stance, even if it is coming through his usual conservative practices.
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